Fox hadn't seen them. The iron teeth in the dew-damp grass. The trap carefully hidden beneath wilted leaves. The scent of a rabbit had distracted her.
Winter was coming and food was getting scarce.
The trap snapped into her left hind leg, smashing her bone and drowning the world in pain.
And, while the vixen struggled to lick the blood off her downy fur, Celeste wished back the hands she'd nearly forgotten. But the fur wouldn't let her go.
She had exchanged the human form far too often and for too long for body of the vixen. Maybe the girl she had once been was nothing but a dream?
Yes. A dream.
She was Fox. Nothing else.
She just hoped death would find her before the trapper came to claim his prize.
They smashed in the heads of the ones who were still alive, and they did it with particular pleasure when their quarry was a fox.
They didn't like animals so cunning, sly and red-clad — like the devil. They preferred wolves.
It hurt so much. The cold iron in her warm flesh.
What if she bit off her leg? And then? How far would a three-legged vixen get?
A horse. Fox heard it snort between the trees. The rider dismounted. Boots plowing a path through the ferns and bramble. She would bite him. She had at least that much strength left.
Fox snapped at him as soon as he leaned over her. But all she caught between her teeth was his sleeve.
He yanked his arm away. He was young. Nearly a boy.
"As you wish," he said. His voice was cool. "You'll bleed to death before nightfall. Unless they get to club you to death first."
He got up. Something about his scent was strange, like a foreign land.
"This is not your trap?" She barely recognized her own voice. She hadn't used it for human words in a long time.
What are you doing, Fox? If he didn't kill her for her fur, then he would do so for speaking in a human voice. But he just looked at her. And all she saw in his eyes was curiosity.
"I can open the trap. But not if you're going to bite me."
The vixen still wanted to bite, but Celeste held her back, even when he touched her injured leg.
"It will be fine," he said, quietly, as though fearing his voice might add to her injury.
It will be fine. She held on to his voice while she drowned in pain. The iron would not give up her flesh easily and finally the world around her went as black as death.
The last thing she felt were his hands touching her.
Black. But this wasn't death.
She awoke to the smell of burning wood, meat roasting over open flames and when she opened her eyes she saw the pale light of morning sneaking through the branches of an oak.
Celeste wanted to get up, but her first movement immediately brought back the pain—and the memories. Her hind leg was splinted with a piece of wood and her wounds were dressed.
"Looks bad. But I'll take you to a friend of mine. She can heal almost any wound." He threw a strip of meat towards her. "What's your name?"
She didn't answer. “How shall I call you?”
He brushed the dark hair from his forehead. "My name is Jacob."
His eyes were alert, like those of an animal. Fox could smell his loneliness and his anger, but also his fearlessness. Almost too much of it.
He had saved her life. There was only one way to repay that debt. One day she would do the same for him.
The taste of his name on her tongue was familiar, as if she'd always known him.